Jenny Holzer, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
Thursday 11 March 2010
We live in a jaded world where we are bombarded by information, much of it in the form of text. It must have been quite different when Jenny Holzer was setting out in the 1970s. She made her name in the pre-digital media stone age on the cutting edge of the New York underground art scene, pitching for the attention of passers-by with fly posters carrying a few well-chosen words pursuing philosophical and political themes.
It was a very Seventies form of artistic subversion – pure concept and stripped of nearly all craft. Her aphorisms, which she dubbed "truisms", included such nuggets as "Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise" and "Stupid People Shouldn't Breed". They were thought provoking, confrontational and very cool indeed.
In 1990 Holzer became the first woman to represent the US at the Venice Biennale. It was a huge accolade. Although her work was savaged by the art critic Robert Hughes, whose Time review appeared under the headline "Sampler of Witless Truisms", it did her career no harm and in the intervening decades she has become one of the most celebrated of contemporary artists.
Her latest exhibition arrives fresh from the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whitney in New York and Basel's Beyeler Foundation. It is getting its only British show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, where it is spread over two floors.
The first is given over to a retrospective of her best known truisms. The epic For Chicago scrolls five hours of selected writings, lit up in dazzling amber as they move relentlessly back and forth across the floor space on eleven LED signs. It is visually impressive and best viewed from the gallery of the fifth floor, which will no doubt prove a popular hang-out site.
Yet be prepared, because like much of the show it takes itself unremittingly seriously – witness phrases such as "I Love My Mind When It Is Fucking the Cracks of Events". It shares the space with two other pieces. The first, Monument, features 22 curved, double-sided electronic LED signs, looks like the Shanghai Novotel, and bears slogans such as "Self-Awareness Can Be Crippling". The other, Lustmord Table, produced during the Yugoslavian civil war, is more affecting, comprising sets of human bones laid out in rows with engraved silver bands bearing more text.
Having given up writing in 2005, she has since focused on declassified documents released by the US Government. These include autopsy reports and military emails from the invasion of Iraq. The use of the heavily redacted material (vast swathes of some of the print are blacked out to preserve secrecy) works well, especially in the piece Waterboard, which evokes the hooded figures of Abu Ghraib. Hand is a tableau of 22 painted handprints, which also includes heavy redaction, this time protecting the identifying features of US soldiers taken when they were questioned for crimes in Iraq. Two maps, including the brilliant Phase III: Complete Regime Destruction, plot the Neo-Con's shock- and-awe invasion plan just as it was presented – like a PowerPoint from Dr Strangelove. Red Yellow Looming returns to the LED display with more de-classified material presented on a walk-through scale, bathed in stunning Rothko-esque colours.
Even if you don't find Holzer's writings profound (personally I did not) or warm to the clinical realisation of an at times one-eyed Hanoi Jane approach to the barbarous conflict that continues to unfold in Iraq (on the day that I visited another 30 people were killed in suicide bombings in the country), you will definitely leave mulling over the way the world has changed. Just make sure you bring your dark glasses.
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